ON A POOL table of black felt, in a basement painted purple, Adrian Peterson is plotting a swift and lasting takeover of the NFC North. Instead of the traditional solids and stripes, he reracks with balls bearing Vikings and Bears logos, sending the cue ball crashing into the pyramid and watching the home-team Vikings tumble into corner pockets. "I'm about to get Green Bay," Peterson says of his collection, "so I can whup up on them too."
As he does in his nighttime hobby, Peterson is bursting through the pile in his day job, posting big numbers at running back just nine months removed from his junior season at Oklahoma. The first pass he caught, in Week 1 against the Falcons, Peterson motored 60 yards for a touchdown. Two weeks later against the Chiefs, he took a handoff and sped around right end, froze veteran cornerback Ty Law with a juke and dashed into the end zone for an 11-yard score. Peterson is among the league leaders in yards per carry (5.0) and in head-and-shoulder fakes, all while learning a playbook "the size of three dictionaries stacked on top of each other," he says.
"Pro football is so advanced," says Peterson, who surpassed 100 rushing yards in three of his first four games. "The coaches dot every i and cross every t. You have meetings half the day, then you practice, then you meet again, making sure you understand the plays and assignments and recognize blitzes."
Peterson says the differences between college and pro football are so pronounced that they're nearly different games. In college he could take a pitch and outrun defenders down the sideline. If they met him head up, he often bounced away and kept on running because, Peterson says, college players tend to tackle with their arms and hands instead of committing body and soul, as in the pros.
"Guys on both sides of the ball are getting paid," says Peterson, the seventh pick of the 2007 draft. "They have a job to do. When you have guys trying to take your head off, it's a whole different level. It's knowing elite talent when you see it, guys playing with the same passion that I do."
With the Vikings, Peterson has had to tamp down the urge to outrun his offensive line before the holes open—even though those holes materialize and disappear faster than they ever did in college. When he watches film, he studies his own footwork. Was he patient? Did he let the play develop or simply try to get by on his speed?
"I'd much rather have to grab him by the shirt collar [to slow him down] than have to put a blowtorch under his ass [to get him to run]," says Minnesota coach Brad Childress. "At Oklahoma it was, [Get] the football and run as hard as you can to the corner. We talk about, 'Smooth to the hole, speed through the hole.' We want to allow the linemen to do their jobs before you run up on them. Those are just some of the subtleties he's learning."
In an echo of his quick adjustment to the college game, where he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman, Peterson, 22, says he already feels comfortable with about 60% of what an NFL defense might present. One difficulty is figuring out how defenses can bring pressure from an array of schemes. But even there he is making strides.
"The thing that impressed me was [not only what he does] when he has the ball in his hands, but [also] the things he does when he doesn't have the ball—running routes, picking up blitzes in pass protection," says Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry. "Usually rookies have a hard time with that, and that's why I refer to him as a ready-made back. He can run, he can catch, he can pass-block, he's tough. He's an inside runner, an outside runner. He's a guy who can get you the tough, short yards, and he's a guy who can break one for 70."
For all of Peterson's production, he's averaging only 19 carries a game. Even that is more than the Vikings had planned, but veteran Chester Taylor missed two games and most of a third with a hip injury. Childress says he has several reasons for alternating his running backs, including the physical demands of the position—Peterson, who sustained a high ankle sprain as a sophomore and broke his collarbone as a junior, invites collisions with an upright, confrontational running style. But with the Vikings at 1--3 (they visit Chicago this Sunday after having a bye), the coach has had no shortage of critics who want Peterson to get the ball more.
"He hasn't seen the myriad looks an NFL defense can give you," Childress explains. "While he's doing well, it's the oddball looks that are tough. If you go the wrong way and get your quarterback hit, bad things happen. It's a process."
Still, Peterson has begun standing behind running backs coach Eric Bieniemy on the sideline, tapping him on his back pocket to let him know he's ready to go back in. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be on the field every snap," the rookie says. "I'm a competitive person, but Chester is a good running back too. I just handle my business when called upon."
Part of that workload includes runs to Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes for the veterans during road trips. But it hasn't been all tedium and teasing. After a Sept. 23 game in Kansas City, the Vikings flew home, and Peterson hosted a birthday cookout for left tackle Bryant McKinnie. "We had fish and grits and a house full of people," Peterson says, ticking off the guest list of rap and R&B guests that included Trina, Slim Thug and Pleasure from the group Pretty Ricky. "It was maximum capacity."
What more can he ask for in his rookie season? "I want Brett Favre's autograph," Peterson says with a smile.
A periodic gallery of the NFL's top Rookie of the Year candidates.
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DAVID E. KLUTHO
BREAK ON THROUGH Peterson has had to get used to waiting for holes to open—but once they do, he's free to turn on the jets.